MOUNT GILEAD — The budget crisis which has plagued the Morrow County Sheriff’s Office in recent months has pushed Sheriff Steve Brenneman to make difficult choices.
Brenneman said Tuesday he is running out of options which would allow him to avoid completely closing the Morrow County Correctional Facility.
The 126-bed jail, located on Home Road in Mount Gilead, houses an average of 35 inmates on any given day, according to Brenneman. The jail staff, which in 2000 totaled 40 people, including 27 corrections officers and support staff, has been reduced in recent months to a skeleton staff of 12 officers, a cook, a nurse and a temporary administrator.
Last week, Brenneman was forced to reduce the staff even further.
“I sent out another nine notices last week for jail staff,” Brenneman said. “I anticipate more layoffs.”
The sheriff said it is simply not possible to keep the jail open with the reduction in staff. Prisoners will have to be housed elsewhere, but where the money will come from to pay for their housing is unknown, he said.
Housing prisoners is one of the duties of the sheriff as outlined by the Ohio Revised Code. The sheriff said housing prisoners elsewhere will prove more expensive because the county must pay for the bed space at another facility, transportation to that facility and medical care.
“It’s actually going to cost more to shut us down than to keep us going,” Brenneman said. “Then the commissioners have to figure out how they’re going to pay for it.”
Brenneman said he has been talking to federal officials about the possibility of housing federal prisoners at the facility, which would generate funds to keep the jail open. If a deal can be struck to rent bed space to the federal government, jobs could be saved.
The operating budget for the jail in 2006 was approximately $2 million. This year, the budget has been slashed to around $700,000.
The sheriff said a steady decrease in sales tax revenue has whacked away at his budget in the last two years.
“I was just informed today this month’s revenue from sales tax was down 23.3 percent from this month last year,” he said.
Just as troubling to the sheriff as the imminent closing of the jail, is the new policy he has been forced to consider regarding response to calls from the public.
“Within the next week we will probably announce that we will only be responding to emergency, violent crime calls,” he said. “The minor theft and calls of that sort we probably will not be responding to.”
Brenneman said the skeleton staff he has ended up with is not able to provide the protection the department once did.
“At times we only have one out working,” he said. “There are times when that’s all that’s out there.”
The department has been reduced to a chief deputy, three dispatchers, and nine road sergeants and deputies. Brenneman said there are times the deputy on duty is actually on call instead of on active patrol.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” the sheriff said.
“We came in with some plans of what we wanted to do,” he said of his first days in office. “We wanted to plan for building it up and we’ve gone backward.”
When asked if he feels his office can now do an adequate job protecting the citizens of Morrow County, Brenneman said “No.”
“We’re not doing what I feel we need to be doing,” he said, pointing out the increases in crime statistics the county has seen in recent months as patrols have decreased. “We’ve seen more activity, especially in the southern half of the county. Burglaries, break-ins and robberies have been increasing.”
He said the option of putting a property tax levy on the next election ballot is not feasible, as the current economic climate has influenced people to tighten their belts and insist their government do the same.
Brenneman said there is not much belt tightening left he can consider. The three administrative staff voluntarily went down to a reduced work week when they were informed a layoff was imminent.
“I was going to have to lay one of them off, so they voluntarily went down to a 32-hour work week so everyone could keep their jobs,” the sheriff said.
Brenneman said everyone keeping their job at the jail and in the sheriff’s patrol and detective units has never been a viable option. Furloughs similar to the ones approved by Knox County deputies this week would not work, according to Brenneman, because of the drastically reduced staff. In order to cover an officer on a furloughed shift, he would probably have to put an officer on overtime, which would prove much more expensive.
Brenneman said there is no quick or easy fix to the dilemma regarding closing the jail, or the manpower issues which are forcing him to have to prioritize calls.
The possibility that new legislation could make its way through the statehouse to change the way law enforcement is funded seems remote at best, according to Brenneman.
“Personally, I think something has to be done to change the funding of law enforcement,” he said.
He said one option the county could look at would be an income tax strictly for the funding of law enforcement.